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Edinburgh, Scotland

Greyfriars Cemetery Mortsafes

Protecting the dead from opportunistic body snatchers. 

The history of Edinburgh and the history of body snatching go hand in hand. As evidence, residents of the capital city once were so concerned about ending up on the anatomist’s table rather than lying in eternal rest that they invested in elaborate cage-like tombs to prevent such a thing.

There were many types of these so-called “mortsafes” ranging from iron cages to heavy stone table tombstones or concrete boxes. There are several intact examples around Scotland, including those at Colinton, St Michael’s Church, and Logierait in Perthshire, Scotland, but the two cages at Greyfriars are amongst the most famous.

In addition to these protected graves, concerned mourners inspired particularly by the horrors of the Burke and Hare body snatching cases also created watch groups dedicated to monitoring the comings and goings in local churchyards.

A shortage of available bodies for aspiring and practicing physicians to study and dissect led to an ever-increasing epidemic of grave robbing for medical use. Between 1827-1828 William Burke and William Hare lured in and murdered their lodgers in a scheme to provide fresh bodies to the local anatomy school. Dr. Robert Knox, a brilliant and well known local anatomy lecturer, purchased the bodies and most likely knew that something was a bit suspicious about his supply chain. The duo were finally exposed, and Burke was hanged in Edinburgh in January of 1829. His death mask, skeleton, and a book bound in his skin are at the Surgeon’s Hall Museum.

The Anatomy Act of 1832 effectively put an end to the panic by finally making it legal for anatomists to obtain enough cadavers in a legal manner, but the few remaining mortsafes reveal just how real the threat once was.

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